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But Sexism Matters: Calling Out Frederick Seidel on Rachel Kushner Review

By Harriet Staff

Rachel Kushner

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Nicholas Miriello takes Frederick Seidel to task for the poet’s recent review of Rachel Kushner’s “widely lauded novel” The Flamethrowers, which appeared in The New York Review of Books a few days ago. Miriello feels that Seidel “at times doesn’t even bother writing complete sentences, let alone a sound argument.” More:

I realize Seidel is a poet, an accomplished one at that, and the structure of this brief passage is clearly concerned with rhythm and style, not substance or even syntax. I’m willing to give him a pass, as a result — he’s made a clear decision to place style in front of substance. Ah well. Of course, Seidel does not extend the same generosity to Kushner’s novel. In fact, he cruelly summarizes key portions of the text until they are rendered mid-cult trash, giving it only a superficial reading while never daring to interrogate the novel’s core themes or interests.

“What is this book interested in?” Seidel puzzles, sprinkling this question like a refrain throughout his review. “Beside motorcycles. Which it’s interested in only a bit, and, as much as anything else, as a plot device, yeast to make the rest rise.”

There’s a lot of writing like this in the review — pithy, sharp, playful, but never quite maturing into anything. The review is actually a special little event of irony, as Seidel’s writing here is plagued by the very curse he ascribes to the novelist: heat, no warmth. Or to be less poetic — shallow, underdeveloped, without true cause. The review meanders, often with no transitions, reading like a stream-of-consciousness riff tinged with drunken irreverence and a sort of confidence one expects from someone who lists in his byline that he owns four Ducati motorbikes. It makes broad and severe statements about the text, most of them purely subjective, without ever supplying one textual example. It’s a back-room smoker’s rant, where examples and a coherent argument are excused and platitudes are welcome.

One of the problems of the book is that while lots of people in it have lots to say about many things, important things included, the things they say never sound like what real people might say, like real thoughts or real speech.


There’s a lot for which I excuse Seidel. I understand he is an important poet, I understand he’s built a reputation for writing in this often hilariously exaggerated persona and I understand he was alive and cognizant during the very time period this novel is mostly set (1970s). But his act, if that is what we can call it, does not work here. Sure, it comes off as callous, as a tad sexist (early in the review Seidel writes, “There is a lot in The Flamethrowers that is tiresome, histrionic, [and] hysterically overwritten”; this is dog-whistle terminology whether or not he realizes it), but mostly it comes off as self-absorbed and tone-deaf. The absence of even a mere mention of how this book treats sexism in his review is a sign of Seidel’s obtuseness. He doesn’t even consider it as a topic. Granted, besides plot and summary, he doesn’t really consider any subject offered in this book. Not really. But sexism matters: the book explores it bravely and sometimes brilliantly, and Seidel misses it or chooses to evade what is so obvious.

Read the full piece here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, July 16th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.